Responding to COVID-19 in... Appalachian Kentucky

This post continues a series highlighting the responses of SECF members to the COVID-19 pandemic in their communities. We will use this series to highlight partnerships, coalitions and innovative examples of giving that help those affected by this crisis. If you are involved in a program you would like to see highlighted here, contact David Miller, director of marketing and communications, at

While the COVID-19 pandemic first took root in densely-populated cities, it has since found its way to rural communities – a shift that has contributed to rising hospitalization levels in Arkansas, North Carolina, South Carolina and Kentucky over the last two weeks.

Communities in eastern Kentucky, the hilly region once dominated by the coal mining industry, were already in a precarious state before the pandemic. Residents there have long experienced higher rates of cancer, diabetes, obesity, opioid addiction and pulmonary diseases, particularly Black Lung disease. The collapse of the mining industry brought with it widespread poverty and greatly reduced access to health care.

“Throughout central Appalachia, COVID is acting in a familiar pattern, one that we see in so many Southern places – effecting people who are already marginalized and living with health disparities at a greater rate,” said Gerry Roll, executive director of the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky. “This in a region that has a rural healthcare system that we know is under-resourced and could be overwhelmed in the coming months.”

The pandemic’s arrival amid a massive economic shift has put incredible stress on the small towns that dot the region, Roll said, including nonprofit organizations.

“Small business and entrepreneurship have been major drivers for this economic transition, and we are concerned that our entrepreneurial sector may not be able to recover,” she said. “Nonprofits in our region are struggling just like they are across the country. The difference here, again like most rural and marginalized communities, is there are far fewer places to turn for support.”

With a health and economic catastrophe looming, the Foundation for Appalachian Kentucky has taken several steps to help communities stay afloat and recover. 

In the days following shutdowns forced by the pandemic, the foundation mobilized a group of partners and raised half a million dollars for the Southeast Kentucky Downtown Business Stimulus Fund, which provided 153 grants totaling more than $385,000 in its first four weeks – recipients, spread over 23 counties, included restaurants, retail, amusement, personal services and others active in the broader downtown and tourism ecosystems.

“We are working hard to not just provide ‘relief’ but to position our communities to recover and grow,” Roll said. “The 153 business that received grant funds represent $26.9 million in gross sales. They also represent 347 full time jobs, 282 part time jobs and 88 seasonal jobs.”

Partners on the Stimulus Fund include government, public universities, the business community and other foundations. Roll said she hopes the high level of collaboration results in a permanent infrastructure that attracts further investment into the region.

“I think ‘big philanthropy’ and high-capacity donors are beginning to recognize the value the kind of infrastructure we’ve set up here can bring to communities that have historically – and continually – been under resourced,” she said. “We’ve also learned that when you have the right philanthropic infrastructure in places and trusting partnerships, you can move fast and move far.”

One economic sector affected by the pandemic in eastern Kentucky not seen in urban areas is agriculture. To support local farmers, the foundation recently launched the Central Appalachian Family Farm Fund.

“We are providing grants directly to small family farms in the region,” Roll said. “What our small family farms continue to need is connection – to farmer’s markets that are going to look vastly different, to online sales platforms and technical assistance, to a growing network of support to help them meet increasing demand in effective, efficient ways.”

Even before the pandemic, the nature of rural communities already required philanthropy to reach far and wide in order to achieve impact. That philosophy has been vital to supporting communities in the wake of COVID-19, Roll said.

“Our work is grounded in a firm belief in collective leadership, making sure everyone uses the skills, tools and resources they can bring, and everyone receives equitable benefit,” she said. “Rural and marginalized communities can’t afford to set up sector-based silos or hierarchical systems of credit and clout. We have limited resources and we use them to the fullest extent possible.”


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